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Kevin Atkinson (1939-2007) was a powerful and inspirational force in South African art, both as a controversial artistic personality and academic. Although better known as a painter and printmaker, he experimented with sculpture, installation, land, and performance art. He embraced a vast range of approaches to painting, moving from geometric abstractions in the 1960s, through the severe yet sensuous contrasts between geometric and organic form in the 1970s, to the forcefully expressionistic gestural works of the 1980s. A witty and incisive voice, Atkinson tried to address complex issues, ranging from the attitudes of American and European expressionist movements to writings on language, semiotics, phenomenology, and philosophy. He translated psychic energies into the visual language of a painted or drawn surface and remained an abstractionist and intermittent conceptualist till the end.

The exhibition, Kevin Atkinson: Art and Life takes its title from the magnificent book of the same name, edited by Marilyn Martin and published in 2022. And, like the book, it situates Kevin in relation to the important figures in his life namely his family and his students and

celebrates his legacy. Unlike previous posthumous exhibitions that aimed to show the full trajectory of his prolific and multi-faceted output, this exhibition brings into view a smaller selection deemed by curators Jo-Anne Duggan and Joe Dolby to represent the best Atkinsons painting and drawings. The exhibition also brings into view the work of his late artist-educator wife, Patricia Pierce-Atkinson, not seen, to this extent, in the public domain since 1993; the work of a small group of former students who reunited in 2018; and works produced by participants in the Canvas Collaboration, a legacy project initiated by the Kevin and Patricia Atkinson Trust.

Kevin Atkinson was one of the most energetic and ambitious of the younger generation of South African artists who emerged in the early 1960s. Born in Cape Town in 1939, Atkinson’s entire career, apart from short sojourns abroad, was based in Cape Town. Awarded a Sir Abe Bailey scholarship, he studied at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town, where he obtained his BA Fine Art degree in 1963. Atkinson embraced the plurality of forms and concepts that emerged in international contemporary art after 1945. Abstract Expressionism, Hard Edge painting, Op Art, Land art, Conceptual art and Performance art were all grist to his mill, but abstraction, painting and experimentation with new materials always remained his interests.

In 1966, Kevin Atkinson won the Gold Medal on the national SA Breweries Art Competition for his abstract painting Aqua-A-Blast. His installations of yellow triangles in Durban and Edinburgh (1972), and his I am a Verb performance of 1973 at Cape Town’s avant-garde Space Gallery, made him a cause célèbre. Promoting debate about the very definition of ‘art’, he influenced generations of students. An ‘artist-philosopher’ in the mould of Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys, with whom he had had personal contact, he ceaselessly challenged convention.

Heading the Michaelis School of Fine Art’s Department of Interdisciplinary Studies (IDS) from early 1972, Atkinson became synonymous with a spirit of adventurous experiment at the School, inspiring the likes of Marlene Dumas, Shelley Sacks and Gary Schneider, who represent only a few of the more prominent of his former students now working internationally. In a new age of post-formalist aesthetics, Atkinson stimulated conceptual and performative approaches to art making that sought to escape from the dominance of the art object. Highly unusual in the South African context, he embraced the notion of the artist as ‘shaman’. In his own work he pursued an artistic re-engagement with the mystical and the symbolic, becoming as much concerned with the metaphysical as he was with the visual. In 1978, he obtained his MA Fine Art degree (cum laude) from the University of Cape Town for a body of work, which includes his Arena series of paintings and prints, which explored the use of universal symbols towards reconciling ‘art’ and ‘life’. Praising his Johannesburg show of 1983 in the Rand Daily Mail, Zoë Storrar observed: ‘[Kevin Atkinson] must be one of the most productive professional and creative artists in South Africa today. He is thoroughly organized and ready to catch fleeting gossamer thoughts pictorially. I’d hazard that he is one of the few artists here who are aware of, and abreast of, Western thinking about painting. Also he is one of the unbelievably few who warrants and gets international attention.’

Just prior to his death in 2007 Atkinson established a Trust with the goal of preserving his underground studio, which he named Plato’s Cave. He conceived of it as a site of artistic debate and a place to make his work and that of his late wife Patricia Pierce-Atkinson (1942-1993), accessible to students, curators and a wider public.

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